South Africa's Zingqolweni, "the village of death"

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Sleep is something that the inhabitants of Zingqolweni abandoned many months ago.

Tucked in a remote corner of South Africa, this frightened village of 3,000 people has suffered a murder almost every month, occurring with clockwork regularity for a year.

The brutal series of killings has earned Zingqolweni a chilling moniker: "The Village of Death."

All 11 victims have been elderly people, most of whom were women and most of whom lived alone.

They have been stabbed to death in their homes after nightfall, when pitch darkness falls over a village where the unpaved roads are unlit.

Nobongile Fihla, 50, spoke to AFP as she walked back from the cemetery.

Her mother was among the first victims, killed in May 2021.

"I found my mother there, next to the door, lying in a pool of blood. Her throat was slit," Fihla told AFP.

Her aunt was then found stabbed to death in the same thatched round hut where the two sisters lived.

No-one saw or heard anything.

The homes, known as rondavels, are far apart from each other in Zingqolweni, a Xhosa-speaking community lying three hours from the nearest large city of East London.

Here the sun sets behind the green mountains of the Eastern Cape province by 6pm (1600 GMT) in the winter months.

- Never in South Africa -

South Africa is one of the world's most violent countries outside a war zone, with a murder committed every 20 minutes on average.

But even hardened police have been taken aback by the gruesomeness of this killing spree.

All the victims were brutally stabbed. Some also had their throats slit.

"They literally bleed to death," a senior police investigator told AFP.

"A series of murders of elderly people with a psychological motive. No, not seen before in South Africa," said the investigator, who asked not to be named.

Six men have been arrested over the killings, and their trial is set to begin in June.

Local police believe the murders are simply burglaries that have gone wrong.

But local official Gcinikaya Koki, 64, is among those who doubt that thieves are to blame.

"After the killings, when people were searching the house they found the money in the house," he said, adding that other valuables were also untouched.

"Now, you then ask yourself, 'What is it that they want from this person that they killed?'"

The only clue ever found has been a piece of clothing.

Fears of a serial killer on the loose have swept the village. Some have fled and women have started sleeping together at night.

- Code of silence -

A special police unit that investigates serial crimes has visited the area several times.

The murders, the investigator told AFP, share hallmarks that fit the narrative of a lone killer.

In each killing, there is a single modus operandi; the murders occur regularly at the start of each month; and there is no evidence of a criminal motive.

The murderer must be young and strong enough to overpower his victims, according to this scenario. And given the remoteness of the village, he probably lives nearby, and possibly harbours a hatred of the elderly.

"The person must have known the people living there and who was living alone," the investigator said.

Husking maize on a stool in front of her home, 82-year-old Nontukunina Mbenyana says she is afraid but she will not leave.

"If they come for me, I am prepared," she said. "I will die in my own house."

Authorities had for months kept silent on the killings, so vigilantes stepped in.

Seven suspects, all men aged 21 to 27, were found dead. Some were burned alive, others hanged in the nearby forests.

Twelve men have been arrested, but then released for lack of evidence.

So the investigation continues, amid a code of silence in the village.

"Nothing happened here," a man climbing into his pickup told AFP.

Lately, the grisly crimes have halted, deepening the mystery.

Increased police patrols and media attention may have deterred the murders "for a while," the investigator said.

"We sometimes see that serial murderers who begin to be uncovered move away. We might come across him again somewhere else..."

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